Could You Please Look Into The Camera, Write Here

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on COULD YOU PLEASE LOOK INTO THE CAMERA at Oran Mor, Glasgow, and WRITE HERE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 19.4.12
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Could You Please Look Into The Camera 4 stars ****
Write Here 4 stars ****

AT FIRST GLANCE, THE SETTING for the opening play in the new One day In Spring lunchtime season – jointly commissioned by Play, Pie And Pint and the National Theatre of Scotland to explore the impact of the past year of revolutions across the Arab world – seems ordinary to a fault. There’s a sofa, a coffee table, a curtained door; only the small video camera on its tripod, and an extra television screen against the wall, suggest anything out of the ordinary.

Yet in a brief 50 minutes – in his new play Could You Please Look Into The Camera – the young Syrian playwright Mohammed Al Attar turns this simple domestic space into a vortex of fear, tension, anger, and uneasy self-questioning; a place that could be anywhere, but is in fact in Syria in the year 2012, in a city where every window overlooking the flat could hide a government informer. In this room, the young film-maker Noura tries to encourage young people caught up in the protests of the past year to look into the camera, and give testimony about their arrest and interrogation by the security forces. Yet so far from producing a simple piece of anti-government propaganda, the play raises the most profound and complex questions about the act of witnessing and testifying, about the role of the camerawoman as interrogator and therapist, and about the infinitely complex attitudes of the protesters themselves.

So we see Noura first with staightforward Karim, who strips off his shoes to show her the electrode marks on his feet. We see her with pretty, fragile Farah, a young actress obsessed both with the sectarian aspects of the conflict, and with her own ambivalent attitude to the suffering of others. And we see her with the calm and thoughtful Zeid, whose attitude of forgiveness towards his captors both intrigues and irritates her.

There are no answers here; and the structure of the play is sometimes awkward, as Al Attar struggles to open up and revisit his many complex themes. Yet the characters are vivid and interesting enough to produce four memorable performances from Alia Alzougbi, Lucy Hollis, Gerry McLaughlin and Umar Ahmed. And in the end, Al Attar produces a rough-hewn but profound and haunting play about the many forms of damage inflicted by a regime that survives by a creating a climate of corrosive terror and mistrust; about the struggle to report without manipulation, to give testimony that does not evade difficult truths, to use the media as force for good rather than evil, and to carry on what seems like an impossible struggle, without either foolish hope, or the ultimate betrayal of despair.

Could You Please Look Into The Camera moves on next week to the Traverse Theatre, where all six One Day In Spring plays will appear between now and June; and it makes a near-perfect companion-piece to some of the work on view in the Traverse’s current Write Here Festival of new writing. The Festival is designed to mark Orla O’Loughlin’s arrival as Traverse artistic director not by staging a single big production, but by running a nine-day celebration of the whole new writing process, involving workshops and debates for writers and directors, an impressive programme of rehearsed readings featuring new work by Morna Pearson, Peter Arnott, Rob Drummond and Tim Price, and a rare chance for audience members to sit in on open rehearsals, so that we can – wth luck – glimpse the same rehearsed reading at three different stages of preparation.

If the shape of the Festival is all about process, though – designed to take advantage of what seems to be a growing audience interest in the rough-and-ready raw material of live theatre, rather than the perfectly-finished final product – the work itself seems to be bursting with strong political content. So far, in Write Here, I’ve watched a reading of a ferociously promising first play called This Little Piggy, by Jamie Laing, which reflects, in a British context, on precisely the same theme of the mechanisms used by state security forces to maintain public order, and defuse dissent. Here, though, the story – full of reflections on role-ply and meta-drama – revolves around one of those undercover police officers, sent to infiltrate a group of green activists over a period of years.

And I’ve also seen two stages in the reading of a shudderingly powerful new piece by Peter Arnott, called Group Portrait In A Landscape, and conceived as part of Arnott’s joint residency between the Traverse and the Human Genomics Forum at Edinburgh University. The result, to judge by this fragment, is a fierce, Ibsen-esque family drama – set at the moment in 1994 when Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party – in which some of the most influential ideas of our time, notably the genetics-based social Darwinism that underpins free-market ideology, are played out and tested through the interactions of a perfectly-imagined family group of characters.

What Arnott will eventually make out of this 70-minute work-in-progress is hard to predict. Yet in this memorable reading, Orla O’Loughlin extracted performances of a quietly thrilling clarity and power from a cast led by Sandy Neilson as a famed liberal academic on the point of retirement, Janette Foggo as his wife, Kim Gerard as their unhappy daughter, and Scott Fletcher as their fragile but beloved gay son; suggesting good times ahead for the Traverse, and plenty more riches to come, as the Write Here Festival rolls on over the weekend, and into next week.

Could You Please Look Into The Camera at Oran Mor, Glasgow, until Saturday, and at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 24-28 April. The Write Here Festival continues at the Traverse until 24 April.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

At the start of the One Day In Spring season of plays about the Arab world’s year of revolutions, Glasgow actor Umar Ahmed gives a memorable performance as the well-to-do young protester Karim in Could You Please Look Into The Camera, by Syrian playwright Mohammed Al Attar. At first, Karim seems practical, resillient, able to keep the demons of fear and mistrust at bay; but as his interviews with film-maker Noura come to an end, he emerges as a much more vulnerable character, terrified of his own inner darkness, and the recurring nightmares which haunt him.

ENDS ENDS

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